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Pivot to making plexiglass ‘sneeze guards’ for retailers saves a small business in Michigan

Reopening the economy may mean a lot more plexiglass.

Those clear partitions, that have lined checkout counters in essential businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies during the coronavirus outbreak, could be a post-pandemic norm.

Stay-at-home orders have already started lifting across the country, with nonessential businesses, like nail and hair salons, and major retailers like Nordstrom and Macy’s, reopening with so-called sneeze guards installed at registers.

“Most of our orders that come in every single day are from your mom and pop business, your medical offices, your retail environments and some large brand restaurant groups too,” said Jim Whitehead, a small business owner in Michigan who shifted production in April to sell plexiglass partitions.

Global plexiglass production increased substantially in March and April compared to February, according to ICIS, a commodity intelligence service. For some manufacturers output was up 300% compared to February.

Despite the surge in protective shields, manufacturers of plexiglass and acrylic sheets – known as Poly Methyl methacrylate or PMMA in the industry – are not exempt from the impact coronavirus is having on the economy. Prices currently are currently around two-year lows, about 40% below May 2018 levels. That’s largely due to the majority of its demand coming from the construction and automotive industries, which have been largely shutdown due to the pandemic.

“They continue to run at very low rates,” said Katherine Sales of ICIS, who doesn’t expect the prices to recover quickly either. However, she said that if new demand continues after the automotive and construction sectors ramp back up, that could be “the catalyst needed for PMMA prices to rebound.”

Whitehead, founder and CEO of i.M. Branded, said he’s glad his company got in early when purchasing the raw materials. After already experiencing a backorder on acrylic, he foresees a supply issue as more of the country opens back up and demand for clear partitions increases.

“We believe not just acrylic partitions, but all social distancing products will be here for at least foreseeable,” said Whitehead.

A worker at Michigan-based i.M. Branded’s factory.

Source: i.M. Branded

i.M. Branded, which designs wall art and signage for new car dealerships, was deemed nonessential under the Michigan’s executive order, forcing the company had to cease operations in March. Whitehead furloughed 130 employees and feared he wouldn’t reopen as other customers tied to new construction projects pulled back on development.

Out of a desire to get back to work, Whitehead said he and his team figured out a way to be considered essential, adding the capability to cut and design plexiglass “sneeze guards” and social distancing signage.

“The goal here is to get back to full operations, get our people back to work … and hopefully come through this thing in a condition that we can be viable on the other side of it,” Whitehead said.

A majority of i.M. Branded’s staff was back in the office earlier this month, filling up to 100 orders a day. “The demand is growing, it’s brisk … as the U.S. starts to open back up, it’s going to continue to grow,” Whitehead said.

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